How Indian American Community is Addressing Social and Economic Issues Through Philanthropy
- Part of it is an outcome of their success in business, especially in technology and finance as well as other sectors, such as medicine and hotel management.
When people from India began immigrating to the United States in the 1960s due in large part to a change in U.S. law, the priority of this small but growing community was to secure its economic base while adapting to local norms and maintaining elements of its vibrant culture. I had several friends of Indian descent while I was growing up in the 1980s in New York City. My best friend in college, Rohit Bakshi, was the son of a doctor who immigrated to the Buffalo, New York area in the 1960s. Today, my pal is a tenured professor at Harvard Medical School, one of the huge number of Indian-American physicians in the country. We have talked and seen each other regularly even since the mid-1980s, except for the six years when I was living in Bangladesh and falling in love with South Asian culture. (I still speak reasonably good Bengali to this day.)
Certain aspects of the Indian community’s coming into its own have happened slowly. For example, only in the last decade have Indian Americans emerged as a force in our nation’s politics. Today, the roles of Vice-President and leader of the House Progressive Caucus are filled by women from the Indian diaspora. The total representation of the community in Congress is now roughly equal to its proportion of the population. (As recently as 2010, there was no such representation at the federal level.) This quantum leap did not happen without sustained and focused efforts from people like Deepak Raj and Raj Goyale, who launched Indian American Impact in 2016.
More recently, Indian Americans have begun to contribute significantly in the philanthropic arena. Part of it is an outcome of their success in business, especially in technology and finance as well as other sectors, such as medicine and hotel management. As one Congressman recently said, Indian Americans constitute one percent of the population but pay an estimated 6 percent of the country’s taxes.
But the community goes far beyond supplying a disproportionate amount of public revenues through paying a lot of taxes. Increasingly, it is embracing American-style philanthropy in addition to significant private remittances, which exceeded $24 billion in 2022 (about a quarter of the global total received by India, according to the Reserve Bank of India).
Three noteworthy trends can be seen in Indian-American philanthropy.
First, donations tend to follow active volunteering with nonprofits. The wealth-adjusted giving of Indian Americans lags a bit behind the American public in general—though it was still more than $1 billion annually, as per an important study by Indiaspora and Dalberg. But that same study showed that they volunteer at almost double the national average, contributing 220 hours per year (compared to 137 for Americans overall). This suggests that many Indian Americans only feel confident parting with their hard-earned money and giving it to nonprofits after they have rolled up their sleeves and worked as volunteers for those organizations. Contributing their time turns their initial skepticism into generosity. This trend is expected to continue, with total giving projected to grow to $3 billion in the coming years—an incremental increase equal to adding a second Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
Second, Indian Americans are generous with nonprofits focused on addressing humanitarian issues in India. Indeed, the members of the India Philanthropy Alliance raise more than $120 million in the U.S. every year, the bulk of it from people of Indian descent. But increasingly, the community has also been giving to local causes, including leading universities and national campaigns to address domestic needs. One example of the latter is Hunger Mitao, which attempts to mobilize Indian Americans to defeat food insecurity in communities across the United States. We may expect many more such initiatives in the years ahead.
Third, Indian-American nonprofits have discovered the power of collective impact—one of the most exciting concepts in U.S. philanthropy in the last 20 years that was popularized by a famous 2011 article in the Stanford Social Innovation Review. The basic idea is that by having nonprofits join forces to solve societal problems, they can do much more than by working in isolation.
By increasing communication, coordination, and collaboration among Indian-focused nonprofits, some exciting things are happening. One example is the formation of the Indian Philanthropy Alliance itself in 2019, which began with 11 founding members and now has 16. Another is the establishment of a new tradition: India Giving Day. This inaugural campaign, due to culminate on March 2, 2023, is destined to become the Giving Tuesday of the Indian-American community. It builds on efforts in India including Daan Utsav and Dasra Philanthropy Week.
These trends related to leading with volunteerism, addressing local needs as well as those in India, and ensuring coordinated efforts for collective impact are likely to grow, if not accelerate, in the years ahead. The community, the country, and the world stand to benefit from them immensely.
Alex Counts is the director of the India Philanthropy Alliance and its India Giving Day initiative. He is the author of Changing the World Without Losing Your Mind: Leadership Lessons from Three Decades of Social Entrepreneurship (Revised Edition), and Small Loans, Big Dreams: Grameen Bank and the Microfinance Revolution in Bangladesh, America and Beyond.